The Neobiological Frontier: An Interview with Jane Metcalfe, Founder and CEO of NEO.LIFE

We talk to WIred co-founder Jane Metcalfe about the future of our species and the merging of biology and technology.

Our March 02020 Seminar speaker is Jane Metcalfe, the Founder and CEO of NEO.LIFE, a digital media and events company she created in 02017 to explore the rapid developments at the intersection of technology and biology, and how those forces are shaping the future of our species. (Metcalfe is the former president and co-founder of WIRED magazine.)

NEO.LIFE has just published a book, NEO.LIFE: 25 Visions For the Future of Our Species, a collection of 25 essays, interviews, and works of fiction and art offering a big-picture perspective on the profound changes made possible by the merging of biology and technology.  

The book features insights from many Long Now thinkers, including Danny Hillis, Long Now co-founder and the inventor of the 10,000 Year Clock (Hillis spoke at Long Now in 02004 and 02014); David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and Long Now board member (Eagleman spoke at Long Now in 02010 and 02016); George Church, the Harvard geneticist working with Revive & Restore to bring back the woolly mammoth; Ramez Naam, the science fiction author behind the Nexus trilogy (Naam spoke at Long Now in 02015); Megan Palmer, a scientist and engineer who focuses on where synthetic biology meets (and will meet) policy (Palmer sits on the board of Revive & Restore and spoke at The Interval in 02018); and Hannu Rajaniemi, a science fiction author, scientist, and entrepreneur (Rajaniemi spoke at The Interval in 02018).

We spoke with Metcalfe about her new book, dizzying advances in biotechnology and genomics, and what she has to say to those who raise concerns about this emerging frontier.

Was there an aha moment that made you realize humans are on the cusp of a “neobiological revolution”? What trends/examples were you seeing that inspired you to found NEO.LIFE?

The neobiological revolution has been taking shape for the past 15 years, starting with the sequencing of the human genome. But it was really once we started being able to edit and reprogram DNA that things started to get interesting. At the same time, we started to map the brain and develop tools for not only seeing individual neurons, but to interpret brain signals and reprogram them. We can see inside organs and follow pathways we never knew existed before. We can engineer bacteria and viruses, synthesize and reprogram proteins and use Yamanaka factors to rejuvenate cells. 

We have massive amounts of data, not only from medical records and DNA sequencing, but also from the inputs we get from the sensors in our watches and rings, in our shirts and our diapers, in our brains and our pills. And thanks to that, we’re training neural networks and creating algorithms to parse big data sets, and finding not just correlations, but causations, and predict which treatments will work. And with our smart phones, we have a massive distribution network for pushing out new apps to monitor, educate, train, predict, prevent, and cure diseases. 

My aha moment came at Daniel Kraft’s Exponential Medicine conference in 02015, when I realized that today, people in medicine and life sciences not only have deep knowledge and understanding and extensive training in human biology, but also data and computer skills. Suddenly I realized this is the next stage of the digital revolution, only this time we are engineering life. And amazingly enough, many of the people at the forefront of this revolution don’t have the bandwidth to see beyond the enormous problem they’re solving in the field they’re so deeply entrenched in. I found myself telling a neuroscientist things she didn’t know about genetics. Or a longevity researcher about synthetic biology developments. And no one seemed to be paying enough attention to the role of nutrition. 

So that’s why I started NEO.LIFE: to help connect the dots among all these siloed disciplines; to identify the extraordinary scientists and innovators who are pioneering new biological solutions; and to help build a community and create some perspective on where this could and should (or should not) be going. 

Is there a particular neobiological-related project you’ve come across lately that has been especially eye-opening in terms of getting you excited about the future?

There are stories every day that excite and inspire me, and choosing just one is impossible. But there are a couple of projects that really blow my mind. There is a company in Pittsburgh called Lygenesis, who are harnessing the liver’s ability to regenerate itself to save patients with end stage liver disease. They do it by using the body’s lymph nodes as mini bioreactors that can convert stem cells into liver cells. So in effect, they can engineer multiple livers within an animal. They’ve done it in mice and larger mammals and are preparing for human clinical trials. Another example is in the field of synthetic biology, where the company Novo Nutrients is using symbiotic bacteria and gas bioreactors to convert carbon dioxide into industrial fish feed at a fraction of the cost, with greater availability and eventually higher nutritional quality. 

I’m pretty excited about reengineering longevity, too. And I think we will learn so much about the diseases of aging in the next five years. The work at David Sinclair’s lab at Harvard is particularly exciting, as is the work at a company like BioAge, who are using historical data from blood banks combined with bioinformatics and machine learning to uncover previously unknown  pathways of aging and identify the drugs that can impact those pathways. 

And that’s not to mention the brain-computer interfaces being developed at a company like Openwater. Or the potential for growing human organs inside pigs for human transplant patients. 

The list goes on. We have a lot of work to do at NEO.LIFE!

NEO.LIFE has been publishing a popular newsletter and online articles about the neobiological revolution for a few years now. Why do a book?

Digital media gives us access to all the world’s information. But sometimes the bigger trends and the bigger picture get lost in the torrent. People get stuck in their disciplines. And not a lot of people are doing Google searches on the term “neobiological revolution”!

I have always loved big ideas supported by deep reporting and excellent writing, and wrapped in beautiful design. The work we’re covering is so foundational to our future that we wanted to capture this moment in time, and establish a baseline for what we know today, and where we hope these tools can take us. So we created a beautiful object that can sit on a coffee table or in a waiting room for all kinds of people to discover today or years from now. Think of it as an artifact for future humans, or in Long Now terms, a time capsule. We had to make it something people would pick up out of curiosity and read with a sense of wonder and hope. We hope it sparks conversations all over the world. 

Despite its promise, many find this emerging frontier terrifying, and raise questions around ethics, potential misuse, and unintended consequences. I imagine you hear these concerns all the time. What do you say in response?

I’m still untangling the difference between ethics and morals. The science exists and isn’t stopping. The opportunities are vast and we will wonder some day in the future why we would ever have questioned a parent’s right to edit an embryo to prevent a genetically inherited disease. Or why we poured so many resources into raising animals that we then killed to eat and ship all over the world when we could have simply grown our proteins in a bioreactor down the street. 

As for misuse, there are lots of people thinking about this all day long. Anything can be misused, from a box cutter to an airplane to a bacterial editing tool. We have to learn responsible use of these technologies and teach our values to the next generation—or perhaps learn new values from the next generation. Evolving a comprehensive set of guidelines and regulations will not be easy, since every nation, every culture, and every genetic propensity will have its own interpretation of  what’s right. 

What’s important is to have these conversations now and bake as many of our universal values into our technologies as we can, upfront. And then design, test, analyze, and adjust as we go along. 

NEO.LIFE: 25 Visions For the Future of Our Species is available for purchase here

Learn More

  • Listen to Jane Metcalfe’s interview with Long Now board member Kevin Kelly on his Cool Tools podcast.
  • Read George Church’s NEO.LIFE interview with Ramez Naam on how to turn science fiction into science fact. 
  • Subscribe to the NEO.LIFE newsletter.
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